'Three things the new GCSE English Literature course taught me about teaching'

Next week sees the first of the new GCSE English Literature exams. This head of English says it has taught her a lot about teaching English

Nikki Carlin

English, poetry, questioning, interrogation

Most of our students will be sitting the first of the new GCSE English Literature exams next week. Two years of uncertainty, anxiety and an approach to grading that’s akin to pulling raffle tickets out of a hat are drawing to a conclusion of sorts.

Soon we may have a clearer understanding of what the exam boards actually want from our pupils so we can better prepare the next lot.

So, what have I learnt over the last two years? Well…

  1. A new specification always has its challenges, but the closed-book aspect of the new Literature GCSE has been a real battle, as well as the new and, in some cases, unfamiliar texts 
    After the national day of mourning when Of Mice and Men was officially removed from the English GCSE curriculum, we all picked ourselves up and went about selecting our replacements. I have enjoyed getting stuck into texts I’ve not taught before and (UNPOPULAR OPINION KLAXON) I’m glad the exams are now closed-book. 

    The closed-book exams have opened up new approaches to teaching and learning that I have welcomed; my pupils know these texts better than any previous year group have and I’ve been amazed by their capacity to reel off Shakespeare quotes and lines of poetry.

    They are now expected to engage with each text on a much deeper level, and I don’t just mean memorising quotes. Knowing that the book won’t be there in the exam means pupils have to really know these texts, which forces them to have an opinion – something that I think has been lacking in previous years.
  2. Literature is now more pertinent than ever before
    The study of literature, in my view, has always been the study of people and society. Since this new course began, the world our children live in has become markedly different – and, if Brexit is anything to go by, even a little smaller. 

    It is more important than ever to challenge the views expressed in The Sign of Four by Holmes and Watson when they talk disparagingly about Jonathan Small’s foreign accomplices and discuss these comments in the light of modern day attitudes to the old British Empire, conquest and invasion. Checking Out Me History and The Emigree serve to open up discussions into topics such as immigration and cultural identity.

    Looking at Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess, The Laboratory and Porphyria’s Lover prompted some great discussions on feminism and male power ("Why is Browning always killing women?", asked one Year 11 girl indignantly). 

    Trump’s rise to power? Look no further than Macbeth. The growing gap between the rich and poor? Compare the privileged life of JB Priestley’s Sheila Birling with the tragic Eva Smith in An Inspector Calls. Or how about A Christmas Carol and Scrooge’s assertion that the poor had better die in order to "decrease the surplus population." It’s not a million miles away from the sort of thing some trolls might spout on Twitter these days.

    When people ask me how to make a text engaging, my response is always the same: “Just read it.” These texts are so rich in possibilities and ripe for exploration, there’s really no need for gimmicks.
  3. Poetry is still a pleasure to teach, despite a bumpy start
    The first set of poetry mock exams bought to mind the famous line from Ozymandias. It was as if my students were taunting me: “Look upon our work, tired teacher, and despair!” Not a quote in sight. No comparison. The wrong poems. Time management so off-kilter most of them didn’t even see the final question...despair indeed. But then, when I was driving to work one day happily belting out the words to House of Pain’s Jump Around, it occurred to me that if these kids have the capacity to remember every God-awful lyric of Mr Fetty Wap’s back catalogue then they could certainly learn all the words to Wilfred Owen’s Exposure. 


I set them the challenge of a poetry recital and they rose to it beautifully. Their confidence in timed essays is now so much higher, knowing that this poetry malarkey isn’t nearly as hard as they thought.

So that’s what I have learnt, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there since I’m not the one about to be tested. Next week I will send my Year 11s off into the exam hall and wish them luck, give them last minute advice, remind them to plan their answers, check their spelling, keep an eye on the time and so on. I think I speak for English teachers everywhere when I say we could not have prepared them any better.

As long as Tissue doesn’t come up as the named poem…

Nikki Carlin is English subject lead at a school in Manchester. She tweets @noopuddles and runs the @Team_English1 account. This is the third in the series of blogs from the participants in #teamenglish

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Nikki Carlin

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